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Public Support for Teachers' Unions and Charter Schools Grows, Survey Says


An annual poll conducted by an education research and policy journal reports an increase in public support for charter schools—but also for teachers' unions, which are often among charters' biggest antagonists. 

The 2019 survey from Education Next, which oversees an annual poll on attitudes toward education, also affirmed previous pollingshowing that the issue of school choice divides Democrats. White members of the party were significantly less likely to support both vouchers and charter schools than their black and Hispanic counterparts, according to EdNext. 

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The public's backing for teacher pay raises also rose again this year, as it did in 2018 following a series of high-profile teacher strikes over salaries and working conditions. On a related note: Among Republicans, approval for teachers' unions spiked compared to a year ago, although it remains relatively low.

And what about how students feel? Most give top marks to their high school—however, they're markedly less likely to give their own local public schools an A grade (68 percent) than their parents (82 percent). Overall, however, 60 percent of the public gave their local public schools an A or B grade—an increase of 9 percentage points from last year and the highest percentage since 2007.

Referring to both President Donald Trump's school choice proposals and teacher pay hikes floated by 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, among other things, Education Next's introduction of its survey results states that, "The tenor of these provocative ideas is resonating with the American public."

School choice support among Republicans has solidified in the last few years, EdNext reports, particularly for charters and tax-credit scholarships, even as Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have failed to dramatically expand school choice from Washington. Meanwhile, survey results like those from EdNext will likely, if anything, bolster Democratic candidates' efforts to secure teachers' union support leading up to the 2020 presidential election. 

The EdNext survey was conducted in May by Ipsos Public Affairs, and polled 3,046 respondents, including a nationally representative sample of adults age 18 and over, as well as oversamples of teachers, African Americans, and Hispanics. Additionally, 415 parents of high school students and their oldest child in high school were surveyed. For more details on the survey, click here

Let's dig a bit deeper into the EdNext polling results:

  • The general public's support for charter schools rose to 48 percent, compared to below 40 percent in 2017. However, that figure represents more of a rebound than a long-term upward trend, since in 2016 more than 50 percent of the general public backed charters. In 2019, 39 percent of the general public said they opposed charters.
  • Both universal vouchers and those targeted at low-income students received more general support in 2019 than in 2016, with universal vouchers more popular at 55 percent compared to 49 percent for targeted vouchers. Interestingly, Republicans' support for universal vouchers dipped from 2018 to 2019, while Democrats' support for targeted vouchers has risen noticeably since 2017. EdNext's questions on the subject do not use the term "voucher."
  • Public support for higher teacher salaries continues to surge. EdNext reported that from 2018 to 2019, the share of the general public supporting teacher salary bumps grew to 72 percent from 67 percent among those "uninformed" about the average teacher salaries in their state. For those "informed" about average teacher salaries in their state and then asked where salaries should go, the share of those supporting a pay hike grew from 49 percent in 2018 to 56 percent in 2019.
  • The share of the general public that says teachers' unions have a generally positive affect on schools grew from 30 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in 2019. The survey also polled the public and teachers about how teachers should be paid; it found, for example, that the public was significantly more likely than teachers to think teachers should be compensated based on "how much their students learn" (72 percent to 42 percent). However, the poll did not indicate this would be the exclusive method for paying teachers. 
  • Democrats who've called for increasing federal education spending can take heart from the EdNext poll. A majority of those polled, 60 percent, say the federal government should spend more on K-12. That number jumps to 67 percent when respondents were told the share of education spending that comes from Washington (typically around 10 percent). As the chart above shows, however, those numbers sag when people are asked whether they want state and local governments to spend more, with the public particularly averse to local spending hikes. Teacher salaries are set at the state and local level. 

For more on the public's attitude toward education, check out our recent coverage of what PDK International found this year when it surveyed teachers and public school parents

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